Maine House advances proposal to let federal laws apply to tribes in the state

June 21, 2023 9:50 PM
Photo: Wabanaki Alliance (courtesy)/Wabanaki citizens and allies rally at the Maine State House, April 2022.
  • Associated Press
June 21, 2023 9:50 PM

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Maine House approved a bill Wednesday that would let Native Americans in Maine benefit from federal laws despite a state land claims settlement.

Story continues below

The bill received bipartisan support, and the 100-47 vote would be enough to overcome a possible veto from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. The Senate takes up the bill next.

Tribes in the state are governed by the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which stipulates they’re bound by state law, treating tribal reservations much like municipalities and generally barring federal laws that undermine state law. That sets them apart from the other 570 federally recognized tribes.

That settlement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet, along with a 1991 agreement for the Mi’kmaq, put the tribes in Maine on a different path from others elsewhere in the country.

“Let’s take a small step, placing the Wabanaki tribes on the same footing as the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the country,” said Republican Rep. Mark Babin, R-Fort Fairfield, speaking in support of the bill.

The bill stops short of full sovereignty sought by the tribes. But it takes a step in that direction by letting most federal laws benefiting other tribes apply to Wabanaki tribes in Maine. Certain federal laws, like those governing casinos, are specifically carved out of the proposal.

Rep. Aaron Dana, who is the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, cited a specific example to show how the current system is failing: After pipes froze at a health clinic during a cold snap, his tribe was not able to seek direct aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency like others could have done in the same situation.

“The immediate and the critical impact this could have for the Wabanaki is why I say this could be the single most important bill in recent history,” Dana said.

Critics expressed concerns the law could cause conflicts and lawsuits. The governor’s chief legal counsel urged the tribes to work with the administration instead of adopting a bill that could create new problems.